On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will deliberate on a legal principle related to how much authority federal agencies have when interpreting laws and making regulations.
The case involves herring fisheries in the Atlantic, but hearkens back to a bill crafted by Sen. Ted Stevens, and could impact a wide array of sectors, from healthcare to environmental regulation. It is one of the most closely watched cases of the Supreme Court’s docket this year.
In Loper Bright Enterprises, et al., Petitioners v. Gina Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce, the matter involves something called the “Chevron doctrine,” named after a 1984 Supreme Court ruling in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, which set the legal test for when U.S. courts must defer to a government agency’s interpretation of a law or statute.
In Chevron, the case was about the Clean Air Act, which required states that had not yet achieved national air quality standards to establish program to regulate and permit ew or modified major stationary sources of air pollution, such as manufacturing plants. The Environmental Protection Agency had passed a regulation under the Act that allows states to treat all pollution-emitting devices in the same industrial grouping as though they were a single “bubble.” A group of litigants led by the Natural Resources Defense Council challenged the bubble provision. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit set aside the EPA regulation as inappropriate for a program enacted to improve air quality. But the Supreme Court at the time, under Justice John Paul Stevens, said the bubble regulation was a reasonable interpretation of the term “stationary source” as referred to by the Clean Air Act.
The Chevron doctrine outlines a two-step process for courts to assess an agency’s interpretation of statute. Courts must decide if Congress had specifically addressed the issue in question. If the answer is no, the agency’s interpretation of how it interprets the law is considered reasonable.
Over time, the Chevron doctrine has become a cornerstone of federal administrative law, and has been referred to in over 18,000 court cases. Conservatives have been highly critical of the law, which gives bureaucrats vast powers over the private sector that it regulates.
This is the first time since 2016 the high court has agreed to reconsider the doctrine. In Wednesday’s arguments, the fishing company Loper Bright Enterprises challenged a rule made by the National Marine Fisheries Service under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, a law crafted by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson in the 1970s.
The rule promulgated under the Magnuson-Stevens Act forces the fishing industry to fund observer costs at $710 per day for data collection. This forced fee is being contested by the fishing companies that argue that the NMFS rule and data collection fee exceeds the Act’s authority.
Both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the agency, applying the Chevron doctrine, although applying different reasons.
In November 2022, Loper-Bright petitioned the Supreme Court to review the D.C. Circuit’s decision and reconsider the Chevron doctrine. The case was accepted in May 2023. The Supreme Court added a related case, Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce, to its docket.
The fisheries are represented by former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement and lawyers from Cause of Action, a New Jersey public-interest firm.
Joining the case on behalf of fishing families and companies are Americans for Prosperity, The Foundation for Government Accountability, American Cornerstone Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute and Manhattan Institute, Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, Buckeye Institute and National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center, Inc., the Cato Institute, and dozens of other entities, including U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, House Speaker Mike Johnson, and 34 other members of Congress.
Environmental groups are arguing as friends of the government’s side. Environmental Defense Fund, Ocean Conservancy, Save the Sound, and others have taken up the cause to protect the Chevron doctrine.